Monday, March 10, 2014

As Beautiful As Queen Esther: Henna Traditions for Purim

This upcoming weekend is the holiday of Purim, so I’m already elbow-deep in hamantaschen and trying desperately to come up with a clever costume. Any suggestions? 

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some information about henna traditions for Purim.

Jewish girl carrying water
for the bath, Sundur, Iraqi
Kurdistan, mid-20th century.
First of all, there is a connection to the story of Purim as found in the Bible. The book of Esther describes how Esther enters the Beit haNashim (the House of the Women) for twelve months: for the first six months they were anointed with myrrh, and for the last six months with ointments, described as תמרוקים, tamruqim (Esther 2:3). 

What is the meaning of tamruq? The word is traditionally interpreted as being some sort of cleansing or purifying ointment; it comes from the root m.r.q., the basic meaning of which is ‘to rub.’
Could the tamruq have been henna? It’s possible, but there’s no evidence for certain. Henna may have been known in ancient Persia, although the closest proof we have for that is that Pliny mentions henna as one of the ingredients in a ‘Parthian Royal Ointment’ (Historia Naturalis, XIII.2), so we can’t say for sure. 

If the tamruq was henna, it would explain Esther 2:9, where the head eunuch takes a liking to Esther and ensures that she is the first of all the women to get her tamruqim, thus granting Esther the darkest and longest-lasting stains. Whatever it was, it worked, since Esther finds favour in the king’s eyes and is chosen as the queen.

But what about historical henna traditions to celebrate Purim in Jewish communities? Since henna was a commonly-used cosmetic, especially at times of celebration, it’s not surprising that there are records of Jewish communities using henna to beautify themselves before Purim.

In the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Anne Finn, wife of the British Consul in Jerusalem, recorded seeing a Sephardi woman in Jerusalem dancing on Purim with hennaed fingers, wearing a blue dress embroidered with gold (Finn, 1866, pg. 460). Yiḥya ʻUmisi (1895-1986), chief rabbi of Rad‘a, Yemen, describes henna in a legal ruling from the early 20th century as “the kopher, called in Arabic ḥinna, which young men use to dye their hands and feet on holidays and on Purim, and when they are married” (Shar‘abi, 2009, pg. 93).

But in one community, we have descriptions of a ceremony that goes beyond simple decoration and is a moving and fascinating story of its own. It’s called khiyapit benatha [the bath of the maidens], and we know of it through the work of Erich Brauer, one of the great Jewish ethnographers of the 20th century (at the bottom of the post I’ve written a short biography).

Kurdish Jewish girl, from Sundur,
Iraqi Kurdistan, mid-20th century.
His book Yehudei Kurdistan [The Jews of Kurdistan], published posthumously in 1947, contains extensive descriptions of Kurdish Jewish life throughout Central Asia (covering mostly Iraq and Iran), including several important and detailed accounts of their henna ceremonies for weddings and other occasions.

In his section on Purim, he includes the following  fascinating description of a henna ritual for the holiday (Brauer, 1947, pg. 281 — this has also been featured on the Henna Page for years):

The second bath, which the girls prepare with the wood they gathered, happens on lel Purim [Purim eve]. As a result of this additional bath, the maidens become as beautiful on Purim as Esther when she appeared before the king [Ahasuerus] — so they believe. For this reason, they call this bath khiyapit benatha, ase ileni shiprit Ister, ‘bath of the maidens, may the beauty of Esther come to us.’… 

Their mothers accompany them. Henna is prepared… Then each girl is dyed with henna (in Amadiyya). After the dyeing, mothers bathe their daughters and sing narike [a marriage song - the words are narine hai nare, the bride is adorned] the way they sing for a bride, and throw at them roses and nuts. Thus they bathe all the maidens one after another in a set order (in Amadiyya and Zakho).

Now, I should note that in my research with Kurdish Jews I asked about this ceremony but no-one remembered seeing anything like it. None of them were from Amadiyya or Zakho, though, so this may have been a local custom particular to these villages. 

Jewish woman,
Iranian Kurdistan,
early-20th century.
In any case, it doesn't appear that the custom survived the transition out of Kurdistan. Susan Starr Sered, who worked with elderly Kurdish women in Israel, notes Brauer’s account of this ceremony as an example of one of the many “women’s religious and non-religious rituals in Kurdistan” that has totally disappeared in contemporary Israel (1992, pg. 132).

Well, I think it’s about time to bring it back! I love this tradition so much. I love that this ceremony involves all the girls of the village, and I love that they are told that they become as beautiful as Queen Esther. I love that the mothers sing songs to their daughters and shower them with treats. 

I love that it represents an innovative and uniquely-Jewish ritual that combines the symbolism of a Jewish holiday with henna's local associations with beauty and celebration. And above all, I love that it reminds us that we have royalty inside of us, and that henna can bring that out! A powerful message for all of us to remember.

If you’re heading off to do henna at a local synagogue, feel free to share this information! And if you’re preparing for Purim, consider calling your local henna artist — if you want to look as beautiful as Queen Esther, that is. Wait: Queen Esther! That’s a good idea for a Purim costume…

Hag Purim Sameah everyone — have a great holiday!

Songs for Purim, Sakhiz, Iranian Kurdistan, early 20th-century.

Brauer, Erich. Yehudei Kurdistan: meḥqar etnologi [The Jews of Kurdistan: ethnological research]. Completed and edited by Raphael Patai. Jerusalem: The Israeli Institute for Folklore and Ethnology, 1947.
Finn, Elizabeth Anne. Home in the Holy Land: a Tale Illustrating Customs and Incidents in Modern Jerusalem. London: James Nisbet, 1856.
Shara‘bi, Ṣephania. Ṣenif melukha: dinei lo yilbash, ketovet qa‘qa‘, serita, veqarha [The Royal Crown: the laws of cross-dressing, tattooing, scarring, and tonsure]. Jerusalem: Qiryat Sefer, 2009.
Sered, Susan Starr. Women As Ritual Experts: The Religious Lives of Elderly Jewish Women in Jerusalem. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Erich Brauer: A Biography

Erich Brauer, ca. 1930
Erich Chiram Brauer was born in Berlin in 1895 to an intellectual German Jewish family. He showed a talent for drawing from a young age, and as an adult was an accomplished painter and photographer. At the age of 10, he contracted a spinal disease (Scheuermann's disease or juvenile osteochondrosis) which left him a hunchback for the rest of his life. Despite this, he excelled academically and studied anthropology at the University of Leipzig, where he received his PhD in 1923 for his thesis on African pastoral religion.

He then moved to the British Mandate of Palestine (along with his close friend and fellow academic, Gershom Scholem), where he began researching the diversity of Jewish cultures, interviewing the many immigrants who were arriving from North Africa, the Levant, and Central Asia. In 1934 he published his first book, on Yemenite Jews, which Patai calls in his Preface “the first ethnological monograph ever written on a Jewish community.” It is still a definitive work of scholarship today, although it has still never been translated, so I get to read it in German… Hooray. 

Brauer continued his research, collecting jewelry, amulets, household objects, and items of clothing, and published a few papers on Afghani and Kurdish Jewish culture. Apparently he also took hundreds of photographs — I wonder if any of them show henna? I should see if I can find them in an archive somewhere.

He began writing a book on Kurdish Jews, again based on his interviews with immigrants to Mandate Palestine, but left it incomplete when he tragically died at the age of 46, after a brief illness, in 1942. His ethnography was edited and completed by his student, Raphael Patai, and published in 1947 as Yehudei Kurdistan: meḥqar etnologi [The Jews of Kurdistan: ethnological research]; an English translation was released in 1993. Much of Brauer's research remains in notes and manuscripts and no doubt there are still treasures to be found in the work of this under-appreciated scholar.


holly said...


Vilasi said...

Wonderful essay. I am eager for more.